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SARS: Corruption and the Wider Issues of Violence in Nigeria

In October 2020, Nigeria celebrated 60 years of independence following British colonial rule. Hopeful images of school children energetically flapping their little green and white paper flags created a sense of unique optimism permeating a country previously tormented by brutal ethnic clashes, military juntas, and civil war.

Yet recent events cast a depressing shadow over Nigeria’s future. At the time of writing, Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, is under an indefinite 24-hour curfew following ardent protests towards the brutal SARS police unit. Amnesty International reports that shots were fired by security services and so far, 12 activists have been killed.

Established in 1984, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad’s (SARS) objective was to tackle violent crime, armed robberies, and kidnapping. However, the unit forged a vicious reputation for violence, resulting in its disbandment in October 2020 with the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit taking its place. Indeed, SARS was accused of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and torture. Amnesty International concluded between January 2017 and May 2020 SARS officers were responsible for 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and, extrajudicial execution. This number is likely to be far higher. More specifically, SARS has been discovered applying a disgusting method of torture known as ‘Tabay’. It is important to understand this method of violence as it still permeates all branches of the Nigerian security services to this day.

This ancient practice was utilised during the civil war of Sierra Leone through Nigerian soldiers of the ECOMOG taskforce and has transcended to all branches of Nigerian security. Victims are bound by their arms and legs for several hours, causing debilitating injuries. SARS had a particularly vicious modus operandi of Tabay. Known as ‘Haren Keke’ or more sinisterly translated as ‘the bicycle ride’, victims were bound in the dark to a chair, their legs, arms, and elbows tied. Following this, SARS officers simultaneously beat victims with cattle prods and clubs. A truly barbaric method of interrogation.

While SARS is no more, police brutality in Nigeria is widespread. The Nigeria Mobile Police, the Nigerian Air Force Regime Special Forces, and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corp have all been accused of this torturous method of interrogation.

The application of Tabay is evidently common in police practice. In conversation with the BBC’s Africa Eye, two young boys, Abba Bashir and Abubakar Malak described how they were tortured by police who accused them of stealing $80. Heartbreakingly, Bashir describes how the pain was so excruciating he felt “it would be better to be shot with a gun”. To make matters worse, government corruption concealed the perpetrators despicable crimes. The officer who tortured the boys received only a 3-month jail sentence. This is especially alarming considering the 2017 Anti-Torture Act, which prohibits torture in the highest possible terms, condemns criminals to a 25-year prison sentence

This is a classic case of empty paper policy and government corruption. In a similar case, Auwalu and Hassan Abdullahi Alfa were tortured by SARS officers. Hassan died as a result of police beatings, yet not a single official was prosecuted. Disturbingly, evidence indicates that Yusof Kolo was responsible for the murder. Instead of facing prosecution, Kolo was promoted to the commander of SARS and is now commander of the Special Tactical Squad for the Inspector of the Inspector General of Police. He is one of the highest-ranking police officials in Nigeria.

What also needs to be made clear is police brutality is more common in the Borno state of Nigeria. One of the poorest regions in the country, the civilians of Borno face violence and persecution from all sides. Footage of SARS attacks suggest many were carried out near the region’s capital, Maiduguri. This is not surprising considering SARS objectives coupled with the strong presence of Boko Haram in Maiduguri, the states capital.

Boko Haram is a Salafi-jihadist group which has terrorised the Borno people for decades. What is noteworthy here is how the police escalated terrorism within the region. In 2009, when Boko Haram was in its non-militant infancy, police officers (possibly SARS) arrested and executed its leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Depressingly, this followed a disastrous political agreement between the extremists and the former Governor of Borno, Ali Modu Sheriff which exchanged political support for sharia polices. Following Yusuf’s execution, Boko Haram amplified its attacks and has doggedly plagued the region with fascistic Islam for over a decade. While Nigeria as a country has been persistently harassed by police violence, the people of Borno face onslaught from all sides. While a ragtag group of Islamists execute all who do not adhere to their ideology, the police torture all those they suspect under the umbrella of a corrupt and ineffective government.

Nigeria has been inundated with cases of police violence. Yet the disbandment of SARS has changed little. The Inspector General of Police, Muhammed Adamu stated all police officers under SARS have been redeployed within other police commands, formations, and units. The tactics and methods of SARS have now been deployed within all branches of security. The recent events in Lagos are evidence of this. Protestors are met with extreme violence. In May 2019, the army executed over 150 individuals campaigning for the Biafra secession movement, yet nothing has been mentioned internationally or domestically.

Police reform and the amputation of SARS will not solve the widespread violence which infects Nigeria. The corruption behind the Anti-Torture Act coupled with self-interested, power hungry statesmen means ineffective and sickening individuals will poison Nigeria’s police and politics. Reform needs to be pushed at the very top of government so the people of Nigeria may finally feel protected by their representatives.

By Daniel Mountain

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